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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Lost Ark of Noah

Recently I was intrigued to learn that Kenneth Ham, the Christian fundamentalist founder and director of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, plans to extend the museum as a theme park, with a full-scale dry dock Noah's Ark as the main crowd-puller. A Biblical scale Ark! Wow! Or... maybe not? Not being sure just how do-able the original Ark could have been, and tending not to take things at face value, I decided to crunch the numbers. So this post is not about the feasibility of getting a mating pair of Argentinian giant anteaters to the Middle East in time to get aboard, or even about where a volume of water far greater than all the oceans of the world combined actually 'abated' to. It is about the Ark as a potentially seaworthy vessel.

Noah's Ark! The name alone has an extraordinary hold on the imagination. The story in Genesis is so familiar that it seems to stretch across boundaries of belief, and countless depictions and models of the vessel have been made. Could the actual vessel still be in existence somewhere, just waiting to be found? Some claim that it already has been, and using scripture as a sort of road map to guide their search, have headed for the famed Mount Ararat in present-day Turkey. The incentive to establish it's existence is not hard to understand, for it would provide the actual hands-on truth of the Genesis story. But is finding it really so straightforward?

This photo (above) was taken on the lower slopes of Mount Ararat in Turkey; the place where Genesis tells us the Ark came to rest after the Flood receded. It seems to show the remains of a huge boat-shaped vessel, and the dimensions of the formation do more-or-less tally with those given in Genesis - and some intriguing artifacts have been found around the formation. It seems compelling evidence indeed, although the structure does match surrounding geology. And yet another strange prow-shaped formation known as the Ararat Anomaly has been spotted on the very slopes of snowy Ararat. There's just one snag with the remains of these supposed Arks: the location of the Ark, if it ever existed, is probably not the Biblical Ararat at all.

Were it not for the fact that I had been reading a *book on a different subject (the Biblical Nephilim), I might not have chanced across this nugget of information. But apparently the Biblical phrase 'mountains of Ararat' (note the plural) is translated from the Assyrian 'mountains of Urartu', a sprawling kingdom that then lay between present Turkish Kurdistan and Russian Armenia (the map above) - a far less specific and more vast  location. As both Urartu and Ararat originally would have been written as RRT (without vowels), there originally was no difference between the names 'Ararat' and 'Urartu'. So it seems that our popular notion of the Ark coming to rest on the top of Mount Ararat needs some impartial revision. But is it anywhere to be found at all? Just how feasible in the first place is the Ark in terms of being a built structure?

Willem Vos is a name to conjour with here in Holland. He is a master-shipbuilder whose stunning achievement has been to recreate a full-scale replica of the wooden 17th century Dutch East Indiaman, the Batavia (above). This is no theme park attraction, but a museum-standard research project; a faithful and seaworthy reconstruction built using only the original tools and methods. Working with the assistance of a small army of student volunteers and maritime archaeologists (one of whom I have worked with, but that - and the fate of the original Batavia - is another story!), the project took ten long years to complete - and the reborn Batavia has been under full sail on the open seas.

So with the *claim by Mr. Ham that the Ark which Noah built would have been 'eminently seaworthy', and with the achievement of Willem Vos in mind, I set about doing the math. The Batavia is 56½ meters (186 feet) long. Converting Biblical cubits to contemporary measure, the Ark would have been (conservatively) some 137 to 140 meters long – almost three times the Batavia’s length. So what about other large wooden ships known from history? There was the U.S.S. ironclad Dunderberg, launched in 1865, purchased by France and renamed the Rochambeau. At 115 meters long, it is one of the largest documented wooden-hulled vessels known. Alas, it was considered 'neither stable nor seaworthy' because of it’s size, and after serving only briefly in the Baltic was decommissioned and scrapped. And there was the similarly-sized six-masted schooner Wyoming, launched in 1909. At 100 meters long, it needed iron cross-bracing to counter warping in its timbers caused by wave motion, and a steam pump to handle constant serious leakage. Having run from a storm, it sank in sheltered waters with the loss of all hands.

But what was the problem with these floating wooden giants? Why can't we just build a wooden vessel as large as we please? Well, that’s where the engineering factor comes in, because this equation states simply enough that the greater the wooden structure, the more the structural integrity is compromised. In other words: the larger a wooden vessel is, the weaker it becomes. Calculating in this factor means that an 80-90 meter keel is probably the safe outer limit for a wooden vessel – and the Ark was half as long again as this. But what was the source of the Ark’s building material? The ‘gopher wood’ (‘gopher’ could have meant a method of treatment, rather than a type of tree) could have been the large cedar of Lebanon, whose maximum height is about 40 meters. The Ark’s keel would therefore have required at least four separate trunks laid end-to-end – and any shipwright will tell you that a ship’s weakness lies in the joins of its keel. But to be frank about it, in all his long life 'shipbuilder' Noah probably had not built so much as a rowing boat before - and was building the Ark with the most ominous deadline in human history looming over his head.

So it seems that Kenneth Ham's proposed land-locked Ark is driven more by a flair for showmanship than by daring faith. But if I remain unconvinced, what, then, might sway me? How about: once the creationist Ark is completed, fill it to capacity with assorted [1]fauna both wild and domestic (I'm being generous in not insisting that those Argentinian anteaters are aboard), get it waterborne, crew it with eight hands who between them have zero experience of seamanship (I'm sure that Mr. Ham will confidently volunteer to captain the vessel), and tow it down to the latitude of the Roaring Forties to simulate [2]sea conditions during the Flood. Then cut it loose to ride out the monster waves for a period of seven months (as specified in Genesis), with no means of turning the craft into the weather. If I could stand on the coast and watch the Ark sail safely back to port, then I might - just might - start to believe. Until then, my conclusion will be that such an overly-massive wooden structure as Noah's Ark, had it ever existed, would have broken its back as soon as it hit the water.

Long ago, a man built a *great wooden vessel to escape a deluge sent as divine retribution to destroy all humankind, except for this chosen man and his family and the beasts of the field which he took on board with him. When the terrible destroying waters at last abated, he released in turn a dove and a raven to help him find signs of dry land. Sound familiar? This man’s name was Ut-napishtim, and his story was recorded on Babylonian clay tablets several centuries before the story of Noah was written.

[1]Having written the above, after some thought I've decided to offer Mr. Ham a more-than-generous concession. In place of all those animals, I'll allow him to substitute sandbags to approximate the collective faunal weight. You'll guess my reason. I just don't like the thought of all those animals going under.

[2]When discussing this subject it's a usually overlooked factor that with no land masses to cause barometric differences and deflect them, storm-force winds would have raged continuously around the flooded planet, as they do for the same reason on planets such as Jupiter and Neptune. My depiction of the Ark in such weather conditions (top image), is for more than mere dramatic effect. The seas of the Flood would have been an unrelenting succession of perfect storms.

*Andrew Collins: From the Ashes of Angels, pub. Michael Joseph
*Andrew George: The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated with an introduction, pub. Penguin Classics


The Ark's true proportions
Note added 26 October, 2012: I like to get things right if I can - and it's also important to me that others can rely on what they read and see here. Since I posted it, my painting of Noah's Ark (top image) has bothered me. I based the Ark upon the commercial model produced by Minicraft Models, whose manufacturers assure us that it is 'produced to cubit scale'. As it turns out, it's not! What bothered me about my painting is that the Ark actually looks credibly seaworthy. It makes you believe that it just might ride out those monster waves after all.

But there are two issues here. The first is the term 'Ark'. The actual Hebrew word used is tebah, which indicates some kind of unspecified container or vessel: something that will sustain and protect the life within it. For this reason this same word tebah is also aptly used to describe the basket in which the infant Moses was found. No mention of any boat shape - or even box shape, as some Ark depictions show.

The second point is that the dimensions given in Genesis (300 cubits long, 30 high, and 50 wide) produce a very different proportion to the Minicraft Ark. These scriptural proportions produce a shape more resembling the proportions of large steel container ships of today - that is: of extreme length in proportion to the narrowness of their beam. As a wooden hull, it would have been more shockingly vulnerable even than my description in this post. The timbers of a hull of such extended length and slender width would have been under constant lateral stress from wave action even in moderate seas. There is also the factor that a vessel without steering tends to turn beam-on to the weather (that is: the waves would be hitting it side-on). This effect, known as broaching, would have caused ever-greater instability and the constant threat of a rollover. Serious leakage and an eventual hull breach would have been inevitable - and even this is assuming that a wooden hull of such massive weight and vulnerably slim length could manage to get fully waterborne in the first place. The stress points along the extended length of the keel - if indeed it had one - would have been compromised to the point of collapse from the collective weight of its cargo plus the weight of the timber of the vessel itself.

The Chinese Treasure Ships
Note added 13 October 2013: What has so far been omitted from this post is mention of the early 15th-century Chinese baochuan treasure ships, which written accounts claim to have been up to 137 meters (450ft) long and 55 meters (180ft wide). If these accounts are trustworthy, then they would have been the same length as the conservative estimate for the Ark in my diagram above. The difficulty with these accounts is that the ships themselves do not exist, and (with the exception of an excavated possible large rudder board) there is no actual physical evidence for them. Had they existed, they might have been of comparable length to the Ark, but their beam was proportionally far wider than the Ark’s Biblical dimensions, which would have provided considerably greater stability. Scholars nevertheless are skeptical – for the very engineering reasons which I have cited above. Being constructed entirely of wood, the flexibility of the structure on the open ocean would have been dangerously compromised even in moderate weather. It is possible that wooden vessels of this size were constructed – but would have been used primarily for show, and would not have left the safety of the Yangtze river. The diagram above is from the July 2005 National Geographic.

The Ark Encounter exhibit opens under leaden skies.
Note that the main door on this 'reconstruction' would actually have been below the vessel's waterline.
The Ark Encounter exhibit
Note added 15 September 2016: The Ark Encounter attraction is now open to the public, and you can visit the website here. The website describes the Ark as 'amazingly seaworthy' - a determinedly optimistic assertion which all that is said in this post continues to refute. If you go to the 'About the Ark' topic on the website you'll see a close-up of the hull timbers. The timbers are not even clinker-built, but are laid flush with each other: a recipe for disaster for such a large wooden structure in any waterborne situation.

The exhibit's organizers also claim that it is the most accurate version of the Ark ever built. But how can they determine this? The scriptural description gives the bare measurements and nothing more - and we do not even conclusively know how long a 'cubit' was, or even what 'gopher wood' was. So what are the criteria for such claims of 'accuracy'? When it comes to creationist claims, showmanship, apparently, counts for more than intellectual honesty.

Apparently Kentucky was hit by torrential rains and floods at the time the exhibit opened. It's tempting to conclude that the Almighty was signalling to those responsible for the exhibit finally to put their money (or rather: their painfully literalist beliefs) where their mouth is and actually get the thing to sea (to be realistic: in a powerful storm). But they won't, of course. Not now, not ever. No-one wants to watch their dearly-held beliefs capsize and sink like a stone.

Dinosaurs in their enclosures on board the Ark. Really??

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